It will snare about 650,000 tons of carbon a year from the Kansas plant, the equivalent of removing 113,000 cars from the road. At today's offset prices, Blue Source will recover its investment in about five years. But projected prices in the next decade under a federal cap would halve the payback period, says CEO Bill Townsend. More than half of the offsets Blue Source sells go for a premium because they're for post-2010 projects that emitters hope will meet federal caps, up from 10% six months ago, he says.
"It wasn't a bad business before, but it's not the business (a federal cap) will bring us," Townsend says.
Some start-ups are grounding their businesses in Mother Earth. Equator Environmental plans to restore forests, at a cost of about $1,000 an acre. Deforestation accounts for about 20% of the world's global warming gases.
With an acre of trees swallowing just 2 to 8 tons of CO2 each year and offset prices under $10, the business is barely profitable until a cap brings higher prices, says CEO Jeff Bortniker. Meantime, Equator plans to harvest trees for extra revenue, planting new ones to keep the forest population in balance.
Still others are tinkering with technologies they say could offer breakthroughs under a federal system that pays top dollar for carbon reductions. The carbon-absorbing machine being tested in Tucson was funded by Gary Comer, the founder of Lands' End shld who was moved to combat climate change in 2001, when he was able to sail the Arctic Ocean without the aid of an icebreaker. Comer died in 2006.
If deployed in large numbers, the carbon-filtering machines could slash new emissions and vacuum decades-old gases out of the air, says Allen Wright, president of Global Research Technologies.
Wright envisions machines the size of 40-foot-long shipping containers that could be trucked to vast isolated stretches where carbon would be buried when technology to do so is available.
With each device able to remove a ton of carbon a day, about 30 million units could scoop up 10 billion tons a year, or about a third of the world's emissions, he says. Costs to capture carbon initially would be about $250 a ton, far more than the projected $100 per ton price of U.S. allowances in 2050. But Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Lackner, who teamed with Wright to invent the machine, says mass production could drive prices to $30 a ton.
There are skeptics. Electrodialysis, which separates the carbon from the panels, uses so much electricity that it produces nearly as much carbon as it removes. Capturing and storing CO2 from the biggest single source — coal plants — as researchers are working to do, would be far more efficient, says Gary Rochelle, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas. "These kinds of projects are a terrible distraction," he says.
Lackner says the CO2 separation instead could be driven by an electricity-free thermal process.
Another carbon-buster with big ideas is turning toward the open seas. Climos wants to dump up to 1,000 tons of pulverized iron over a patch of ocean as large as 15,000 square miles in a bid to germinate plankton. Iron ore has been shown to promote the growth of the microscopic ocean algae, which inhale as much CO2 in six months as a forest consumes in decades.